The Italian Royal Family: A Primer

A brief history of one of Europe's oldest dynasties, the House of Savoy.

A brief history of one of Europe’s oldest dynasties, the House of Savoy.

If one were to ask the man on the street if he could name a living European royal, Prince Emanuele Filiberto would probably not be his first answer. It very well could be Britain’s Queen Elizabeth or Prince Harry, or maybe even His Majesty King Felipe of Spain. Italy is a global force to be reckoned with in everything from sports to cooking to art to cinema, yet hardly registers in the realm of the aristocracy. Why is this? Despite the fact that Italy’s House of Savoy is far older than many of its peers such as the House of Windsor or the House of Borbón, it receives little press outside of the history books and the occasional piece on the curious pastimes of its luminaries. The story is too complex to be contained to one article, but we’ll take a look at how the House of Savoy originated, where it lost its way, and what the future holds for its remaining members.

As we sift back through the sands of time, the year 1003 AD rises to our view. Humbert the White-Handed was a feudal lord of likely Burgundian origin who established the House of Savoy as a result of his close alliance with the Holy Roman Emperor of his era. Not a great deal is known about Humbert’s life, but we can surmise that he rose to prominence after serving Conrad II loyally in his campaigns against both French and Italian rivals. Conrad granted him lands in the French Alps, and Humbert began to build his empire by controlling key trade routes between Italy and France. Some of the important areas under his dominion included Chambéry, Aosta, and Valais.

Humbert’s sons and grandsons worked diligently to retain power while expanding their territories, cleverly using marriages of state to push further into Italy and Switzerland. A couple of centuries down the line, and the family had managed to move into the clergy in places like Saint-Maurice in Switzerland and get involved directly or indirectly in several of the Crusades. Among the highs and lows of the Savoy chronicle, Amadeus V is important to us not only for having an epic title but also for his establishment of the Salic Law of Succession for the family. Essentially this meant that only male descendents could inherit the Savoy wealth and territory and carry on the family lineage. This law would remain in place for the next 750 or so years, and we will touch on it again when discussing the state of the royal family in 2020.

The geographic County of Savoy became the Duchy of Savoy under Amadeus VIII in 1416, and would fluctuate around 4,000 square miles for the next four centuries. There is a great deal of history we are skimming over here, but through wars and epidemics the House of Savoy retained its hold on power, leading right up to the unification of Italy in 1861. Incredibly, after more than a millennia, there was a King of Italy reigning on the peninsula. Vittorio Emmanuele II certainly did not hold the unlimited power of the kings of old, but he was an accomplished soldier and diplomat, and beloved enough to earn the epithet Padre della patria. Even today you can find streets, schools, and shopping centers named after him, and he remains an admired figure for his restraint as a leader.

His successor Umberto I had a tougher time of it, overseeing a miserably poor southern Italy under the iron hand of an unchecked Mafia, a failed colonial expansion into Ethiopia, and the violent suppression of protestors taking issue with soaring bread prices. An anarchist’s bullet put an end to his headaches in 1900, and his son Vittorio Emmanuele III rose to the throne. The diminutive royal was known as ‘Sciaboletta’, or ‘little saber’, and carried the same disproportionate torso as his mother Margherita of Savoy. Keenly aware of his physical appearance, the king had gone out of his way to ‘marry up’, yoking himself in 1896 with Elena of Montenegro, a comparative giantess at 5 feet, 9 inches.

Despite his awkward bearing and distaste for the trappings of royalty, Vittorio Emmanuele III grew into a respected head of state, intervening during World War I to break Italy’s alliance with the Central Powers and join the Allies. While Italy did not have a major impact on the outcome of the conflict, the king was fully invested and sought to bring aid and compassion to the most affected areas such as Monte Grappa and Vittorio Veneto. The war ended with more than 2.1 million Italian casualties, including 650,000 dead, and little to show for it aside from a cratered economy. It was out of this rubble that a new face arose on the political scene.

Benito Mussolini would come to define Italy’s relationship with the House of Savoy for the greater part of the next century, forcing Vittorio Emmanuele to make a decision that would cast a shadow on the dynasty for generations. Mussolini survived World War I and a dramatic ousting from the Italian Socialist Party to form the National Fascist Party. After growing in size and political influence, 30,000 of Mussolini’s followers marched on Rome in 1922, demanding that a Fascist government be installed. The king had an opportunity at this juncture to crush the movement, but he instead embraced it, seeing Mussolini as someone who might be able to bring stability to the peninsula. Italy’s royalty had already begun to lose its grip on power, but it was with the 1938 leggi razziali that the Savoys permanently lost the respect and support of many of their subjects. Despite having a Jewish population of less than 50,000, or 0.1 percent of Italy as a whole, Mussolini made their persecution a top priority. The series of laws sharply restricted the civil rights of Jews across Italy, making it impossible for them to conduct business, attend school, own property, or move about freely. Vittorio Emmanuele put his name to this legislation, essentially justifying it on the basis of maintaining national unity and preventing the fascists from taking more radical action.

Though Vittorio Emmanuele would briefly regain the throne in 1943 and seek to rectify his past mistakes by removing Mussolini from power, the damage had been done. He abdicated in May 1946 and passed on the scepter to his son Umberto II, but the constitutional referendum the next month settled the question for good. By a vote of 12.7 million to 10.7 million, largely along North-South lines, Italy turned its back on monarchy and embraced republicanism. Vittorio Emmanuele and Umberto II would both die in exile, never setting foot in Italy again.

56 years later, the exile law was overturned by the Italian Parliament, and the Savoys landed back on Italian soil. Umberto II’s son Prince Vittorio Emmanuele was already 65 years old and beset with legal issues, so it was Prince Emanuele Filiberto who became seen as the spokesperson for the family. In the eighteen years since the Savoy return, he has proven himself a questionable choice. While regal at least in appearance, Filiberto has spent most of his time building his acting portfolio, appearing in everything from electronic cigarette ads to the Italian version of Dancing with the Stars, which he won in 2009.

There have been moments of gravity, such as this past January, when he announced that he was breaking with the Salic Law of Succession and designating his sixteen-year-old daughter Vittoria as his heir. While Filiberto claimed it was in the name of progressivism, others saw it as a calculating maneuver designed to sidestep the Italian constitutional restrictions on male monarchs. Filiberto has an endearing habit of testing the waters from time to time, noting back in 2018 that a national survey on the monarchy showed that 12 percent of Italians want a king back on the throne, and 8 percent would pick him.

The Italian political landscape is not known for its permanence, but with the 74th anniversary of the constitutional republic commemorated last week, we can safely say that the House of Savoy will remain a relic of a gilded age. Or can we?

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